Taking off the Blinders: What Multiple Archives Add to the Story of American Expansion in the Pacific

Minami Nishioka

“Court interpreter. Shin, Lew Chew—from a daguerreotype” taken by American daguerreotypist Eliphalet M. Brown, Jr. In Matthew C. Perry, Francis L. Hawks, Narrative of The Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan (Washington, DC, 1856), 192.

We all know that decisions and actions taken by non-American historical agents have shaped how Americans interacted with the world. However, to reveal this powerful dynamic requires a thorough multi-archive practice. Recently, an increasing body of scholarship has paid attention to the role of the early American republic in the Pacific world.[1] To gauge how the Americans’ encounters with the East shaped their mutual identities of both the United States and the Pacific, it is both valuable and necessary to incorporate marginalized voices in their own languages. My own research concerns a somewhat obscure British medical missionary, Bernard Jean Bettelheim (1811–1870), who was appointed by the British Loochoo[Ryukyu] Naval Mission to the Ryukyu Kingdom (today’s Okinawa Prefecture) in 1846 and forcibly settled there despite an existing ban on Christianity. The implications of Bettelheim’s story only became clear to me when I was able to examine the archives of the Ryukyuan and Japanese people who encountered him during his “adventures.” Triangulating Anglo–American records with local records allowed me to see dimensions of Bettelheim’s story that were formerly obscure.

How can the story of one British missionary help illuminate the early American republic in the Pacific? One reason why we should study Bettelheim is because he was one node in an intricate web of long-existing Anglo–American networks that shaped the American presence in Japan starting in the early nineteenth century.[2] From the perspective of the U.S. history, Bettelheim’s intersection with the American narrative of expansion into East Asia came when American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Ryukyu to negotiate the ending of maritime restrictions of Ryukyu from 1853 to 1854 and Bettelheim vigorously supported Perry’s gunboat diplomacy. In contrast to Perry’s ground-breaking “opening” of Japan in 1854, the “opening” of the Ryukyu Kingdom around the same time is less known. Bettelheim, with his many connections, was a significant actor in this story. When Bettelheim arrived, the Ryukyu Kingdom, which is located in the East China Sea between Canton, China, and Japan, was an independent political entity experiencing a so-called “dual subordination”— it was in official terms a tributary to China but in fact secretly subordinated to Japan’s Satsuma domain.[3]

The Chinese Repository, vol. XIX, 1850, 36. American missionary Samuel Wells Williams introduces a letter from the Ryukyuan General Governor to Bettelheim, declining Bettelheim’s offer to teach geography, astronomy, and Western medicine to the Ryukyuans.

Before Perry’s arrival in 1854, the American presence in Ryukyu was fragmented and sporadic. However, Bettelheim’s medical mission in Ryukyu from 1846 to 1854 reveals the existence of consistent inter-imperial ambitions on the part of Anglo American missionaries, naval officers, and merchants wishing to expand their influence on Ryukyu through Christian missions, medicine, and gunboat diplomacy. Following the Western penetration of China after the First Opium War (1839–1842), they were eager to expand their enterprises into Japan. They regarded Ryukyu as a stepping-stone to this goal. When the British Loochoo Naval mission was launched, China-based American missionaries like Samuel Wells Williams and Peter Parker were among those most eagerly supporting Bettelheim’s enterprise in Ryukyu. Williams, the editor of the China-based English-language newspaper the Chinese Repository, publicized Bettelheim’s mission to a wider American and British audience in China, whereas Parker’s medical mission, in particular his hospital and his vaccination efforts in Canton, became a role model for Bettelheim’s mission in Ryukyu. To repay his indebtedness to his fellow Americans, upon Perry’s arrival in Ryukyu in 1853, Bettelheim served as a mediator and an interpreter between American naval officers and Ryukyuan officials, willingly making himself available for the cause of American encroachment into Ryukyu and Japan. Thus, the British Loochoo Naval Mission serves to illuminate the long history of American ambition for the “opening” of Japan in the early nineteenth century and, more broadly, the importance of considering transnational networks to illuminate otherwise ignored aspects of the early American Republic’s presence in the Pacific.

To understand the impact of these networks, it is also imperative to conduct multi-archive historical research and excavate the voices of marginalized people. Comparing English and non-English sources often reveals constant negotiations between colonizers and colonized. My research on the interactions between Bettelheim and the Ryukyuan officials, who tried to drive the missionary away, shows how differently the Ryukyuan governmental document and the records of the missionary approached the same events. For instance, Ryukyuan officials who were trained as interpreters, though skeptical about Christian missions, expressed relative openness toward Western medicine. Bettelheim reported that one interpreter was so eager to promote his ointment for scabies to other Ryukyuans that he almost exhausted his supply.[4] However, Ryukyuan documents remain silent about these interactions. In their official correspondences to Bettelheim, Ryukyuan officials repeatedly declined Bettelheim’s offer to teach Western medicine, telling him that they were content with their Chinese traditional healing methods. In a report to Satsuma domain, Ryukyuan officials even noted how “forcefully” Bettelheim practiced medicine on local Ryukyuans.[5]

This disparity presents two possible interpretations. First, the Ryukyuan interpreters were exceptionally open to Western technologies whereas other officials were not, suggesting conflicts among the Ryukyuan officials in dealing with Western encroachment. Second, the Ryukyuan government tried to maintain its intricate diplomatic position between China and Japan while exploiting Western medicine. Because Satsuma domain had imposed maritime restrictions on Ryukyu to hide its control from China and the world, it is possible that Ryukyuan officials wanted to hide their appreciation for Western medicine to avoid any conflict. At the same time, they could not ignore the benefits of Western medicine. Thus by emphasizing how “forcefully” Bettelheim treated the Ryukyuans, the Ryukyuan officials might have been playing victims while taking advantage of Western technology. If we only read Bettelheim’s reports, the story that emerges is a triumphant narrative of the West; Western influence gradually penetrated and eventually “opened” Ryukyu. However, if we read his accounts against the Ryukyuan documents, we see that while taking advantage of Western technologies, the Ryukyuan officials refused to give any credit to the missionary and tried to maintain a diplomatic balance between China and Japan.


[1] Kariann Akemi Yokota, “Transatlantic and Transpacific Connections in Early American History,” Pacific Historical Review 83, no. 2 (2012), 204–19; Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC, 2015).

[2] As for Anglo–American relations in the early nineteenth century, evangelicals and anti-slavery supporters often collaborated. Emily Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Ithaca, NY, 2015); Richard Carwardine, Transatlantic Revivalism: Popular Evangelicalism in Britain and America 1790–1865 (Waynesboro, GA, 2006); W. Caleb McDaniel, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform (Baton Rouge, LA, 2013).

[3] As for Ryukyu’s intricate diplomatic situation, see Gregory Smits, Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics (Honolulu, 1999).

[4] Bettelheim, June 23, 1846, Apr. 26, 1847, The Journal and Official Correspondence of Bernard Jean Bettelheim 1845–1854. Part 1 (1845-51), ed. A. P. Jenkins (Naha, Japan, 2005),108–109, 235.

[5] Ishin Shiryō Kōyō [A Collection of Documents Related to Meiji Restoration], vol. 1, 179.

24 May 2022

About the Author

Minami Nishioka is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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